Refugee children need our protection

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Refugees in Brussels' Parc Maximilien, September 2015. [JoelSchalit/Flickr]

With more and more unaccompanied minors arriving at our borders, Europe needs to do more to ensure their safety and to give them hope for a better future, writes Věra Jourová.

Věra Jourová is the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.

Visiting a children’s refugee shelter in Brussels was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my mandate so far. I met an 11-year-old boy who had travelled on his own for 15 months. Fleeing war-torn Afghanistan and leaving his mother behind, he crossed borders tied to the bottom of a truck and walked hundreds of kilometres. Today he is learning French and Dutch, playing football and drawing.

Despite the unimaginable psychological trauma children like him suffer, from fleeing war and violence in their home country, to the experiences they went through during their journey to Europe, the children who reach the shelters are the “lucky” ones, because they are now in safety.

Many children are still making their way to Europe from conflict areas. Over 250,000 children under the age of 14 applied for asylum in Europe in 2015 and over 125,000 between the ages of 14 and 17. Children represented 25% of all asylum applicants in 2015, and recent statistics show an upward trend with the number of children arriving by sea up by 16% in January compared to six months earlier.

Risks all along the route

The risks taken by unaccompanied refugee children and the consequent risks to their fundamental rights are enormous.

Europol has recently presented an alarming estimation showing that 10,000 unaccompanied minors may have disappeared after arriving in Europe. Undertaking the journey to Europe alone, they run a high risk of being exploited by criminal gangs for human trafficking, sex work or slavery.

This is a blatant violation of Europe’s fundamental rights and the rights of the child.

These children are deprived of their childhood, of the chance to go to school and perhaps of the chance of contributing to society as adults.

We must deal with this issue when tackling the migratory flows Europe is experiencing right now.

Call for action

There is a need for action at the borders of the EU.

The law enforcement response must be robust. Combatting the trafficking and smuggling of children will be a priority for EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust. Under no circumstances should the migratory route become a market for criminals to recruit the most vulnerable and make money from human misery.

The time children spend going through the asylum application process needs to be as short as possible, because these are times of distress, and times where the risk of their going missing is at its highest.

Border guards along the migratory route and in hotspots should prevent tragic family separations. In this regard, cross-border transfers need to be sped up and the relocation and resettlement of unaccompanied children or children with families should be prioritised.

There are a number of existing rules to protect minors in the EU legislation on asylum, immigration and trafficking in human beings. For instance, unaccompanied minors should be followed by a guardian throughout the entire asylum process. EU funding is already supporting actors on the ground to improve the protection of children on the migratory route. But these rules are not always applied.

There is also a need for action once these children have arrived. Measures for the integration of children with a right to international protection should not be delayed. Giving them access to education and an understanding of shared European values is the best way to include these children in the different countries that welcome them. Their social exclusion could lead to future societal challenges.

The little boy I met is still without his mother but he is terrified she will try to join him, risking her life to undergo the perilous journey. But he is also thinking about his future, just like all European children. He wants to be a carpenter, and was already building a table for the shelter. But for this to happen, he needs our help now.

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